Synod of the Family and Debating Difficult Questions

Social media exploded upon the release of the interim relatio of the Synod of the Family. Progressives are exulting in the return of the spirit of Vatican II; traditionalists are upset and demanding an immediate halt to debate and unambiguous reaffirmation of the irreformable moral teaching of the Church. Looking at the matter from the outside, however, it seems to me that the exultation and hand-wringing are way premature. It’s just an interim report. It’s not formal, authoritative teaching. The one man who seems to be keeping his head about all of this is Fr Robert Barron.

I wish to compliment the RC bishops for honestly addressing these difficult and complex moral and pastoral questions. They deserve study, reflection, and vigorous debate. Even though parts of the report worry me–it sometimes sounds too much like the inclusive ideology that destroyed the Episcopal Church–the simple fact remains that the pastoral issues will simply not go away.

Of particular interest to me is the how the bishops will deal with the proposal to readmit divorced and remarried Catholics to the Eucharist, after an appropriate period of penance. From my perspective as an Orthodox Christian, this is a no-brainer. Divorce and remarriage is not the unforgivable sin; but that is exactly what permanent exclusion from the Body and Blood of the Lord implies. Nor is a legalistic annulment process the appropriate way to deal with the problem. Not only does it give the appearance that one can buy eucharistic admission, but it is too mired in subjectivity. The RC Church has locked itself into a legalistic understanding of the matrimonial bond, from which it is now struggling to escape without the appearance of a substantive change of doctrine. On this matter, the Latin Church really needs to look to the Eastern Church for guidance.

My prayers are with the Synod bishops. The decisions they make affect all of us.

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12 Responses to Synod of the Family and Debating Difficult Questions

  1. chalcedon451 says:

    I am exceedingly grateful to you for this very sensible and thoughtful contribution; would there were more such.


  2. GrzeszDeL says:

    I feel moved by the OP to make a variety of comments.

    1) I agree that both exultation and despair are way premature. The ultimate document issued never looks like the leaked intermediate drafts.

    2) Speaking as a Roman Catholic, I will be fine if the approach to communion for those divorced and remarried should end up looking like the approach taken in the East. I would be shocked and scandalized if we should adopt the Orthodox approach to remarriage after divorce, but that is a separate issue from admission to the chalice.

    3) I think that the OP’s characterization of the current Catholic approach as “legalistic” is too facile, and ultimately inapt. The present bar from the chalice is not predicated on the idea that divorce and remarriage is an “unforegivable sin.” The problem is not that this sin cannot be foregiven. The problem is that the sin in question (adulterous relations) is evergreen. The remarried divorcé can confess his sin and be foregiven, but then when he returns to his adulterous bed, there is a new sin begotten.

    A new sin requires new contrition. This is not “legalistic.” This is as pastoral as one can be. I gather that the way that the Synod in Rome is contemplating to square this circle is to emphasize that the eucharist can be a help to–not just a reward for–repentance. I agree that in this respect we would be borrowing from the Eastern understanding of oikonomia and akribeia, and that would be all to the good.

    4) Finally, if you will forgive the hubris implicit in this comment, the worry that the publicized draft “sometimes sounds too much like the inclusive ideology that destroyed the Episcopal Church” is largely misplaced. The Holy Spirit watches over God’s Church, and will not let Her drift into error. The ECUSA can drift precisely because it has separated itself from the Church, and thus it cannot necessarily rely on the Holy Spirit to keep it in line.


  3. Kim Fabricius says:

    Correct me if this Reformed Christian is wrong, but how will — can — penance square the circle of indissolubility? In Roman teaching (I thought) you can no more undo a marriage (apart, of course from annulment, which retrospectively declares that, actually, the marriage was not a marriage [though if it looks like a duck …], but which, as you point out, is a procedural — and, above all, a pastoral — scandal) than you can take Christ out of the transubstantiated eucharistic elements. So how is it possible for a remarried Roman Catholic, living in an intrinsically adulterous relationship, to do sincere penance whatever the period?


    • brian says:

      That’s the issue. Marriage has a metaphysical dimension that can’t simply be ignored or made different through a legal procedure.

      All that said, I personally agree with Marilyn McCord Adams regarding how the Eucharist ought to be approached. It is medicine for sinners. One ought to be generous to the point of leniency in making it available. Some criteria developed in the modern era (I mean the last 500 years or so) was rightly concerned with encouraging real attempts at spiritual progress among the clergy and the laity, but the reaction led to a perfectionist criteria that I think is damaging.


    • GrzeszDeL says:

      I think that it goes too far to characterize remarriage after divorce as “intrinsically adulterous.” Adultery is a sin, but it is not a sin that one commits simply by filing a piece of paper with the county registry office. It is a sin that requires acts of the body and the mind.

      I do not think that penance squares the circle of indissolubility. In any event, I never mentioned “penance.” I mentioned “repentance,” which has slightly different connotations that I do not want to get mixed up. If the parties to a remarriage following divorce repent, presumably their repentance will (among other things) consist in their ceasing from the acts that constitute adultery.

      Getting back to the squaring of the circle, my point was that sin creates a brokenness that requires healing. As Brian notes, the eucharist can be a medicine for sin. The eucharist is both (1) a means for effecting healing, as well as (2) the reward that can be enjoyed once such health is restored. We Catholics have long emphasized aspect #2, but left #1 somewhat neglected. As I gather, the Synod is looking to bring #1 more clearly into the pastoral decision of whether or not to commune a given sinner. I do not see that there is anything in this potential new approach that breaks faith with the most authentic aspects of the older Catholic tradition.

      If we were to move fully into the Protestant or Eastern Orthodox approach–where the divorced cannot only receive the eucharist, but can also be married in a church–that would be break, not a development. Mercifully, I feel confident that the Holy Spirit will not let the Synod make such a mistake.


      • Kim Fabricius says:

        My point was, precisely, that penance does not — because it cannot — square the circle of indissolubility, as The Catechism of the Catholic Church specifically teaches that Catholics who, without receiving an annulment, remarry after divorce live in a “situation of permanent and public adultery”. Nor am I sure how speaking of “repentance” rather than “penance” changes the matter one iota. Only a complete volte- face on indissolubility can do the trick.


        • GrzeszDeL says:

          Well, as the policy is currently “no communion for the divorced and remarried,” if the new policy becomes “some communion for the divorced and remarried,” then obviously there will have been a reversal of some sort. It is not clear to me, however, that this is reversal on the question of indissolubility. In fact, it seems pretty clear to me that indissolubility is not up for discussion.

          Right now, if you open the missalette in the pew of your local parish, right up at the front–on the second or third page–it will say something like “those who are conscious of grave sin should refrain from receiving communion.” As I understand it, the policy change being discussed is not “should we regard some marriages as dissoluble?” but rather “should we allow some people to approach the chalice even when they are conscious of grave sin?”. This is, potentially, a reversal, but not a reversal on the question of indissolubility.

          The indissolubility of marriage is a dominical command that the Church may not revisit. The question of who among the baptized can take communion has always been more a matter of discipline, and is therefore subject to change according to prudence and circumstances.


          • Kim Fabricius says:

            In fact, it seems pretty clear to me that indissolubility is not up for discussion.

            You’re right about that, for sure. It really can’t be up for discussion. Contraception too, I think. For then the rest of Roman moral teaching on marriage would collapse like a house of cards.


  4. Salaam says:

    Let me begin by saying I’m not a theologian… As an Oriental (Ethiopian) Orthodox, this issue has always troubled me. In our Church, there is no divorce (remarriage) except in the case of adultery. This is a reasonably simple interpretation of the scriptures and the Fathers. And the Church leaves it at that simple interpretation, precisely to avoid the acrobatics that, in my humble opinion, both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church have had to engage in on this issue. I think also at a pastoral level, this simple interpretation would be of great help. (By the way, we still have big problems in this area, but it makes sense to me.)

    I also think that this issue is an example of where true Orthodox ascetical practice would be of great help. Fasting, praying, almsgiving, real (forgive me) liturgy, having a spiritual father seems so essential to hitting the mark in marriage. When it comes to marriage, the Roman Catholics take the highest road, but they seem ill equipped to do so.


    • Dante Aligheri says:


      I am intrigued, especially as it seems the Oriental Orthodox possess an ancient voice unencumbered by Greek-Byzantine or Latin-Roman history. In the event of civil divorce and remarriage (in a situation without adultery), what is the Oriental Orthodox approach to reception of the Eucharist? For that matter, what is the approach to civil remarriage? Similar to the Russian and Greek Orthodox with regards to penitential marriage?

      Thank you.


      • Salaam says:

        I can only speak about the Ethiopian church. One of the problems I mentioned above is that people used to get civil marriages to avoid the loftiness of Christian marriage. While in such a state, they do not partake of the Eucharist, interestingly not because they are refused, but because they hold such a high regard for the body and blood. In fact, you will find a large portion of the adult population which sees itself in various states of sin avoid the chalice for years, even decades. The Ethiopian tends to sin out of weakness rather than ideology.

        Yes, this is a problem, but the situation is getting better – less civil marriages and more Church ones, along with a better understanding of Christian marriage.


  5. The inclusive attitude of the Episcopal Church is difficult for many people. Does it go too far? Sometimes. Is it destructive of the faith? No. We put ourselves into a position of vulnerability that tries, despite our many failings, to welcome all. We certainly have not fallen prey – for better or for worse – to the RC sin of rampant legalism or the Orthodox one of intransigence. “All have sinned and fallen short…”


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